Hurray For The Riff Raff are a young band enjoying a good deal of buzz, but don’t let that mislead you into thinking they are the flavor of the week. They balance the hype by deftly exploring and evolution of roots and folk, namely Americans music. At 25 years old the band’s front woman, creative and spiritual guide Alynda Lee Segarra, is already an accomplished singer-songwriter having been a solo performer before joining in with the loose collective that is Hurray For The Riff Raff.
After seeing HFTRR captivate a capacity crowd at San Francisco’s Amnesia bar I realized this might be the last time I was able to see them in such an intimate space. They are about to become one of those bands that will break big but, I believe , will still embody a authenticity of artistry and spirit that drew me to them in the first place.
The following is a brief email interview I conducted with Segarra. I hope you enjoy it.
Baron Lane for Twang Nation: First off, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for my readers. I saw you and the band at Amesia in San Francisco last week and the place was packed. I believe you could have filled a place twice it’s size. Has this been the typical reception to your current tour.
Alynda Lee Segarra from Hurray For The Riff Raff: We always have a great response in SF. The west coast is definitely more foreign to us as a band because we don’t get out there as much as we’d like to. But there are certain cities that treat us like we’re at home, SF/Bay area Oakland definitely is one of those cities!
TN: Does the name ‘Hurray for The Riff Raff’ reflect a personal or band identity or creed?
ALS: I really relate to the name, it’s about cheering for the underdog. I’ve always felt like an alien, as a child I felt like I was born in the wrong era, I was obsessed with the 1950′s and I was sure there had been a mistake. It had a lot to do with the music of that time but it was something more than that, I felt like I wasn’t made for “modern times” in America. I longed for something older, for a way of life that had been basically stomped out. I felt I was born into a world where everything had been discovered, explored, bought up and sold already. As far as music to inspire me, when I was a child the radio had the Spice Girls, NSync, all this crap that I knew I was supposed to like but did nothing for my soul. It was the old music that did it for me. Doo Wop, Motown, and then Rock n Roll as I grew up.
I was in the middle of NYC, which was a blessing and a curse. I saw a long life ahead of me working, buying, and working some more, struggling to survive in such a competitive and increasingly expensive city.
It all lead me to work really hard at finding an alternative way of life, and I was lucky enough to be able to take a chance and leave. Everyone in the band is a fucking weirdo, although we may not look like it! But we are! And that’s the beauty of it. We have all had that desire to search for something…”real” I guess is the word. I don’t know what the word is.
But now that we play and write music, we get to add to this scene that we’ve wanted our whole lives. A music scene for weirdos who want to get down to some good music that sounds old and new at the same time. To create a music scene that isn’t bought up and sold yet. Anyone who wants apart of that is riff raff to me.
TN: Was music a part of your life growing up in the Bronx?
ALS: I have always escaped through music. I used to obsessively learn lyrics when I was a kid, I’d learn songs from old musicals like “West Side Story”, “The Wizard of OZ”, “Singing in the Rain”. I loved the way those actors sang, I liked the way they pronounced their words, their tone etc. When I got older and started getting more rebellious I was discovering the punk scene in the Lower East Side. I’d take the subway and go to a show down there, it blew up my world. I loved the live shows, and I loved the political messages a lot of the bands had. I really started connecting to feminist punk bands, it gave me this sense of pride and courage that was really important for me as a kid.
TN: You left home at 17. Being on your own must have been tough. How did you manage?
ALS: I followed my instincts, had some rough times, relied on a lot of friends. I had to go through that time period in order to be who I am today.
TN: Was the guitar your first instrument? Do you play anything else?
ALS: I played a little guitar in middle school, but nothing big. I guess I consider the washboard my first instrument. I started playing it with the Dead Man Street Orchestra, when I was traveling with them. I just loved being in charge of the rhythm, it gave me enough confidence to go on to learn the banjo and then meet up with the guitar again after that. I play a little piano at home, I wanna start jamming on the harmonica next!
TN: Who are your singer/songwriter inspirations?
ALS: Wow, I have a lot! Gillian Welch is a HUGE inspiration to me, she is brilliant at crafting a song. She is a bridge between the old world and today, and I’ve learned a lot from listening to her. Of course there’s John Lennon, I personally connect to his acoustic album that was released after his death. A lot of demos and just a raw portrait of him as a songwriter. Early Bob Dylan of course, Neil Young. But there’s so many musicians of today that I listen to that push me to work harder. Shovels and Rope, John Fullbright, The Alabama Shakes, Clear Plastic Masks, Sam Doores and Riley Downing. I feel so lucky to be able to see these guys live and be peers with them. Everyone is pushing each other to do their best.
TN: What were the events that led your from road kid to The Dead Man Street Orchestra?
ALS: We all fell into a family sort of dynamic in New Orleans. It was a really incredible time, probably one of the happiest I’ll ever be. It was the year before the storm, the winter time and we were between halloween and mardi gras. We actually played all together for the first time in Jackson Square on Lundi Gras day. I first played music with two of the members Kiowa Wells and Barnabus Jones at the railroad tracks. We sang some Johnny Cash songs and I played washboard with some seashells i found. i was hooked, I needed to play music all the time. I owe my life to all those guys, they’re all so talented and taught me so much.
TN: You self-released two albums (2008s It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You and 2010s Young Blood Blues) as a solo act under the HFTFF moniker. You then recruited the Tumbleweeds to back you. Why did you decide to take HFTFF to a fill bands instead of a solo act?
ALS: It was always a full band, just had different members. It was a really different sound for the first two records, I was inspired by a sound that was very New Orleans at that time. A lot of the young artists there were playing this dark/gypsy banjo accordion stuff, and I loved it, but I grew out of it. Sam Doores and Dan Cutler helped me grow into the sound I wanted. Yosi Perlstein had been with me since Young Blood Blues and he was so important with the change because his drumming added to my more “rocking’ songs but he could also play a mean country fiddle. I got lucky with these guys!
TN: “Look Out Mama” draws from a variety of styles to form a organic body of work. What’s your view on genres in regards to your band?
ALS: I’m not good at genres, Sam is way better at that stuff. I just say we play Americana, Folk/Country whatever. But there’s a lot of old blues in there, early Soul and R&B.
TN: I’m interested in the unexpected album cover for “Look Out Mama.” What is it depicting?
ALS: It’s my father. He’s about 19 and in Vietnam. His buddy took that picture and it’s hung up in his hallway at home. I grew up with that picture, it was burned into my subconscious. I thought a lot about it, how it must have been to be so young and thrown into that situation. What it must have been like to come home and have to get back to everyday life. It made me think a lot about people I meet, where they are coming from, what they’ve been through.
It also made me question our government from a very young age. Was it worth it? Was it worth all the lives that had to be repaired? The ones we lost? I thought it really fit the music of the album, and it had been recorded while my community in New Orleans was mourning the loss of a friend who had been murdered in his house.
It was a time that I was thinking a lot about violence, about how it’s being fed to us. How we’re killing each other, and when I think about it too much it drives me crazy. A lot of people are talking about violence in the media, which is a worthy discussion, but why don’t we think that the wars we are in overseas will come home at some point? The poverty and anger, the hatred against our neighbors. We got a lot of work to do.
I just wanted to create something positive. I write about my dad on the back of that album, about how he inspires me to be hopeful and to try to make something different for the world.
TN: You come from Puerto Rican roots. How has that shaped your music?
ALS: When I started growing into an adolescent I was drawn to a music and style that has a predominantly white audience. For some reason at that age I felt shame about who I was. I didn’t “belong” with ether group of white punks or your average New York Puerto Rican. It led to me to really search within myself for who I wanted to become. I didn’t have a role model who looked just like me. I had to pick and choose what inspired me from a wide variety of sources with all different faces and backgrounds. I also learned that I don’t want to be apart of any scene that doesn’t celebrate difference.
The punk scene was incredibly important to me when I was a teenager, but I also felt a lot of stress on pretending I was exactly the same as all the other kids. When in reality I grew up very different than most of the white kids who were around. My family was different, we dealt with different hardships, we ate different food, we talked different. But in the punk scene we were all supposed to be the same. But there are some differences that are meant to be treasured, so we can truly learn from each other.
I remember feeling like somewhere along the line I had chosen to be white. But I never would truly be, no matter what the outside world perceived me as. Poetry taught me who I was and the beautiful history of Puerto Rican poets inspired me. Poetry was where I felt at home. I remember reading Puerto Rican poetry from the LES and realizing that writing was an integral part of my path in life. I remember reading a poem that read “Puerto rico is a beautiful place, Puerto ricqueno is a beautiful race” and that just rung out forever in me like a bell. I wanted to start combining my worlds. It lead me to folk music, which lead me to traveling and Woody Guthrie and political musical figures who believed in the soul and the struggle of the people.
Being Puerto Rican is at the core of my existence, it is the landscape of my family’s experience and so it is mine. It also changes my feminist experience. It is a gift to me, that I get to see the world I see through Puerto Rican eyes, I can bring a little something different to the table. It’s also meant that I have a lot of anger inside me because I want all people of color to be free. I want to break down the traps that are set up before them to keep them in their place.
Now I play folk music. I’m not letting anything stop me from being wholly who I am anymore. I’m going to create a space for myself to be entirely who I am. Folk music encourages that, the Queer scene around the world encourages it, New Orleans encourages it as well.
TN: What is your process for creating songs? Slow incubation or flash of inspiration?
ALS: I have to catch the tunes as they fall on me. They come fast and not always complete, i’ve learned to keep a recorder handy. I’ve learned to honor the song when it comes. Sometimes you have to be late, sometimes you have to turn off your phone. Townes Van Zandt said he never gave up on a song. That’s quite a thing to say because a lot of songs come to us writers. To give each and every one a solid try is really doing good work. That’s what I strive for.
TN: and last, what’s next for HFTRR?
ALS: This summer we’re gonna be doing a lot of touring that I’m super excited about, and hopefully putting the finishing touches on our new album. I want to play a lot of festivals, make some new friends and keep writing. I got a feeling 2013 is gonna be a good year for the ole’ riff raff.